SALT LAKE CITY — Behind the blood-curdling screams, demonic outbursts, howls of despair and wails of anguish, the ghouls, zombies, witches, Grim Reapers and various other tortured souls who inhabit the old abandoned warehouse on 1300 South for two months every fall share a little secret the public doesn’t necessarily need to know.
They love it here.
This is paradise.
Given a choice between spending September and October in Bermuda or at the haunted house called Nightmare on 13th, they’d choose here.
Dreamland on 13th is more like it.
• • •
“I honestly would work here for free,” says Aaron Record. And he isn’t kidding, except maybe for calling what he does work.
Every night he shows up at Nightmare on 13th, exchanges his street clothes for those of a mad scientist, and from 7:30 to closing time does his level best to frighten the daylights out of people who have paid $25 to let him try.
“I found a job that isn’t a job,” he says. “It’s that much of a kick.”
It’s been eight years since he answered the ad on the haunted house’s website, “Get paid to scare people,” and except for the year his wife gave birth, he’s returned every year since — powerless to do otherwise.
He’s not alone. Aaron is surrounded by a cast of characters who every autumn flock back zombie-like to the job. They keep rising from the crypt, as it were.
Of the more than 100 actors who make up the cast, between 30 percent and 40 percent return every season, according to Nightmare on 13th co-owner Mike Henrie — an impressive retention rate for jobs that don’t start out at much over minimum wage.
“I couldn’t shoo them away with a broom,” says Mike.
Ally Sharkey, for example, has been a Nightmare on 13th regular for the past seven years, ever since she was 17. In the meantime, she has earned not one but two degrees from the University of Utah, in psychology and theater, and yet scaring people remains the thing she’d rather do than anything else.
She likes it so much she once came to work when she had pneumonia. The only part she doesn’t like is the ending. Every year at the conclusion of the two-month run she gets what she calls “the nightmare blues” — as do many others in the cast. To help each other make it through the 10 months when they’re not scare acting, they often get together and watch movies, have dinner and throw zombie parties.
“The thing I like, every night I come here everything else going on in my life disappears. I get to be somebody completely different,” says Ally. “The challenge to be creative just takes over, and every time you get a good reaction (good in this case meaning provoking outright terror) it’s amazing how it keeps your energy up.”
Her favorite role is as a woman who holds strict sway over her decaying kitchen, jumping out and swinging a 12-inch frying pan at intruders.
“I like the demonic maid because she’s very loud, she takes charge, everything in her house must be her way,” says Ally with a huge grin. “She’s not a female victim, she’s powerful — traits I’d like to have, just not as extreme.”
Her most enjoyable moments are when “I get eight to 10 guys cowering in the corner.”
Beyond the rush she gets from performing, an equally big draw for Ally is being part of an extremely close-knit cast.
“I think a lot of people here consider themselves social outcasts to an extent,” Ally explains, “but here everybody feels welcome. Every single person is friends with every other single person.”
Bryan “Wolf” Mower seconds that in spades. He works the deli counter at a Smith’s by day; by night he’s a demented junkyard caretaker who wields a mean sickle-like knife.Comment on this story
“We don’t hurt anybody,” says Mower. “It’s just fun when you see they’re scared, but they’re enjoying being scared.”
Adds Mower, who said he has been diagnosed with high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome: “Out in the world, I really don’t want to be in the limelight. But in here, I’m completely comfortable performing. I feel wanted and accepted and cared for by pretty much everyone, co-actors and customers alike.
“This place is home. There’s no place I would rather be.”